Israel to Propose Settlement Compromise to U.S.

By Amy Teibel | May 26, 2009 | 7:26 AM EDT
Jerusalem (AP) - Israel would dismantle nearly two dozen wildcat settlement outposts in the West Bank in the next few weeks if the U.S. drops its objections to continued building in existing, government-sanctioned settlements, officials said.
Last week, President Barack Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington and demanded a halt to all settlement growth. But Netanyahu has defied that demand since his return to Israel, saying his government will continue to build homes in existing settlements.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak will bring the new proposal to senior American officials during his visit to Washington next week, the Israeli officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposal has not yet been officially submitted.
Under the terms of the U.S.-backed "road map" plan for Mideast peace, Israel is to both take down the outposts and halt building in existing settlements. But it has flouted those obligations since the road map was signed in June 2003.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is to meet Obama at the White House on Thursday and Ahmed Qureia, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the demand for a complete settlement freeze will be the main issue.
"Any attempt to maneuver on the implementation of the road map regarding settlement activities is unacceptable," Qureia told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
"What does a peace process mean when settlements are continuing on the Palestinian territories?" he asked. "What we want is to immediately dismantle all settlement outposts and to stop what is called the natural growth in the settlements, and to stop all settlement activities."
Abbas has said there is no point to meeting with Netanyahu unless he freezes settlement construction and agrees to open negotiations on Palestinian independence. Netanyahu has agreed to renew talks, but has resisted U.S. pressure to voice support for Palestinian statehood.
The U.S. considers the settlements -- home to nearly 300,000 Israelis -- obstacles to peace because they are built on captured territory the Palestinians claim for a future state.
But Netanyahu and Barak both say the 121 existing settlements must be allowed to expand for "natural growth," the ill-defined term Israel uses for population growth in the settlements.
U.S. policy and the road map specifically oppose settlement expansion to account for natural growth.
The wildcat outposts are a peripheral part of Israel's West Bank settlement enterprise because only a few thousand people live there, generally in tents or mobile homes. But these communities, set up to extend Israel's hold on West Bank land, have become a rallying point for settlers and their supporters and a bone of contention for Palestinians. Several have turned into full-fledged settlements.
Settlers have put up an estimated 100 outposts since the early 1990s without government authorization but with the knowledge of an array of government officials. Under the road map, some two dozen are to be torn down.
Netanyahu has clashed with members of his hawkish Cabinet in recent days over dismantling that smaller number of outposts, signaling the internal difficulties he would face if he tries to take stiffer action against settlement construction.
He has said he will not tolerate unauthorized construction, but some of his coalition allies don't want the outposts knocked down.
Barak, the official authorized to order outpost demolitions, has taken little action against the outposts since becoming defense minister two years ago.
In other developments, Egypt allowed a European aid convoy into the Gaza Strip after holding it up for two days. Twelve ambulances and medical supplies were let into the Palestinian territory, accompanied by 20 activists. The remaining 140 members of the delegation were not allowed through.
Egypt and Israel have blockaded the coastal territory since the Islamic militant Hamas group took power there two years ago.
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